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Lewis Center for the Arts

A Place to Create and Collaborate

By Anne Levin 

Photographs courtesy of Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Art

Staging one of her dances for the Lyon Opera Ballet in France a few decades ago, choreographer Susan Marshall was thrilled to find herself in a newly remodeled, state-of-the-art theater with spacious rehearsal studios and plenty of room to test out her ideas. It was like a dream come true, “a sort of fantasy that was actually happening,” Marshall recalls.

For Marshall, since 2009 the director of dance at Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts, an even bigger fantasy has materialized. The Lewis Center’s $300-million-plus, multi-building arts complex along Alexander Street and University Place is everything the Opera Nouvel in Lyon offered her, and more.

The new complex designed by Steven Holl Architects doubles the studio space of the University’s dance department. Two of the four large studios also function as theaters. “They are spacious, they have light, and they feel inviting,” says Marshall. “And each one has its own character. It’s just thrilling.”

Dance is just one of the arts being given a monumental boost by the opening of the Lewis Center. The complex will house the University’s programs in dance, theater, musical theater, and the multi-disciplinary Princeton Atelier, as well as the music department’s expansion to supplement what is already located in the Woolworth Center of Musical Studies.

The new arts center opens officially with a campus-wide arts festival October 5-8 (see sidebar). It is as much about encouraging collaborative thinking as it is about adding space and gleaming new facilities. Princeton follows a liberal arts model in which the arts relate to each other and to academic areas of study. “It’s a partnership of scholarship and practice,” says Marion Young, the Lewis Center’s administrative director. “These new buildings are dedicated in many ways to practice, performance, and collaboration. It’s about the making of art and the study of art.”

It was over a decade ago that former University president Shirley Tilghman envisioned a multi-disciplinary arts initiative that would elevate the quality of Princeton’s cultural offerings. Peter B. Lewis, a member of the class of 1955, donated $101 million to get the project started in 2006. Lewis, who was president of Progressive Insurance Company, died in 2013.

The plan for the 22-acre Arts and Transit Neighborhood called for the relocation of the Dinky train station some 460 feet south. There was considerable opposition, legal and otherwise, from some members of the community. But the University prevailed, and the old station and its neighboring building have been turned into the popular eateries Cargot Brasserie and The Dinky Bar & Kitchen.

Some Princeton residents also expressed concerns that the Arts and Transit complex would serve the University community, but leave the public out. Not so, according to those involved.

“I sometimes refer to the new Arts Neighborhood as Berlind Alexanderplatz,” says Michael Cadden, chair of the Lewis Center and a well-known professor of theater. “Little did we realize when the University collaborated with the McCarter Theatre in the construction of the Roger S. Berlind Theater in 2003 that it would be the prelude to the construction of an entire neighborhood. The Berlind has added immeasurably to the community arts scene and I expect the Lewis Arts complex to do no less. It will give our students proper venues to share what they produce in collaboration with our teachers and guest artists. It will also give the greater Princeton community an opportunity to participate in their creative processes and to assess their final products.”

“Just the location itself will be an exciting place, even if you’re just moving through it,” says Ms. Young. “Yes, there will be students there. But it is definitely open to the public.”

The architects faced multiple challenges. “We wanted to radically transform the southwest edge of campus and create a completely new arrival experience, while connecting it to the community,” says Noah Yaffe, a partner with the Holl firm. “And a very specific goal was to elevate the programs in the arts, particularly theater and dance. We had to knit those goals together and maximize the collaboration and exchange between the arts.”

A three-sided courtyard that relates to existing campus traditions, a large reflecting pool, and a forum are all key components of the design. It is the forum, which is located underneath the reflecting pool, that most excites Cadden.

“That’s where colleagues and students from both Lewis Center programs and the Department of Music will pour into before and after classes and events,” he says. “We’ve done lots of wonderful work with the Music Department over the years, but now we’ll be living cheek by jowl. Good fences may make good neighbors, as Frost suggested, but I’m happy that this space is all about the gates in the fence. It should prove to be a wonderful place for serendipitous encounters and for off-center collaborations of all kinds. It’s also a place where audiences might gather after a show to chat with friends about what they’ve just seen. I’m also looking forward to the visual atmosphere of the forum, as it will be partially lit by skylights in the floor of the pool in the outdoor plaza above.”

The three-story Music Building has practice rooms and teaching studios that are suspended from the roof to assure sound isolation. “This one of the most interesting things for us,” says Yaffe. “We wanted to take the idea of acoustic isolation and give it architectural expression. They are like individual boxes.”

Members of the Princeton University Orchestra, the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, the chamber orchestra Sinfonia, and various jazz ensembles will be able to rehearse in a room with 30-foot ceilings and adjustable acoustics. All of the practice rooms have new Steinway pianos. A separate, 800-square-foot jazz studies studio is one of several specialized teaching facilities in the building.

Operating for several years out of a former elementary school at 185 Nassau Street, the University’s dance department was desperate for more space. “We have been up against a wall in terms of how many courses we can offer and at what times,” says Marshall. “We have been kind of frozen in terms of what we can offer. With the new building, we can involve more students.”

The new home for dance provides more space, under one roof. “We have had the Hagan Dance Studio at 185 Nassau and another large studio at New South, which is on the opposite side of the campus,” Marshall says. “That left students and faculty dashing across campus to get to meetings and classes. With all the faculty and studio courses now in the same building, I think drop-in conversations among students and faculty will be so much easier and healthier and productive for everyone.”

“I don’t think there is another department on campus that is experiencing such a sea change in the facility,” Yaffe says of the dance building. “There were so many things we weren’t interested in replicating from 185 Nassau, but the spirit of collaboration is something we wanted to build on. There is kind of a wonderful energy at 185, and our concern was to maintain and augment that in this new building. The connectivity between the pieces and the programs are part of that. There is also lounge space and stair circulation spaces that allow for impromptu collaborations. And that is key to how Princeton views the programs for the arts.”

Marshall expects that the arts complex will become a destination, “a natural hangout,” she says. “With its proximity to the new restaurants and McCarter Theatre, people will naturally come through our buildings. All of the spaces will make these three arts—dance, music, and theater—feel more tangible and available.”

The buildings are made of a variety of materials, including translucent glass. “It’s highly energy efficient and it allows for wonderful qualities of daylight,” says Yaffe. “At night, the building lights up and glows like a lantern.”

It has taken four years to turn what was formerly a parking lot, for the most part, into a new complex of buildings and landscaping that create a new gateway to Princeton. “We’re just thrilled with how it turned out,” says Yaffe, who has been working on the project for a decade. “We’ve loved walking directors and faculty and trustees and donors through, and it has really been a treat to see their reactions. I think the public will feel the same.”

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